Iconic Grizzly Bear to Become More Vulnerable

After decades of work to save them, government regulators are proposing to remove federal protections for Yellowstone’s iconic grizzlies.

Grizzly 399 and three of her cubs walk down Pilgrim Creek Road in Grand Teton National Park.
Grizzly 399 and three of her cubs walk down Pilgrim Creek Road in Grand Teton National Park. (Courtesy of Tom Mangelsen)

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This spring, as wildflowers bloom and snowy mountain peaks thaw, a 400-pound matriarch of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is expected to emerge from her den. With any luck, a fresh batch of cubs will accompany her, marking another successful year in one of the greatest conservation success stories ever told.

This famous bruin is Grizzly 399, a 19-year-old mama bear whose unmatched tolerance and infinite calm has made her world famous. Every year, millions travel to see the granite summits of Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming and many hope to catch a glimpse of 399, her cubs and other Yellowstone grizzlies.

Yet despite their popularity, these awe-inspiring creatures face a new challenge. Last week, in response to the historic success of recovery efforts put in place in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the grizzlies of Yellowstone National Park from the endangered species list. If the proposal moves forward, grizzly bears that roam outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks—including 399—could be targeted for sport hunting under state management.

Earthjustice has worked for decades to safeguard the Yellowstone region’s grizzly bears from habitat destruction, excessive killing and other threats—both to protect the grizzly bears themselves and because a landscape that is wild enough to sustain grizzlies is also wild enough to sustain the countless other wildlife species that make this region a special place.  Now we are busy reviewing the government’s new delisting proposal in detail to ensure that the Yellowstone region’s irreplaceable grizzly bear population is adequately protected. 

In the meantime, a coalition of conservationists, Native American tribes and researchers is voicing opposition to both delisting grizzlies and bringing back sport hunting of these magnificent creatures. One of the people speaking out is Tom Mangelsen, a legendary nature photographer who has spent a decade tracking and photographing Grizzly 399. Mangelsen’s latest book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, tells the story of this grand matriarch.

I sat down with Mangelsen to discuss bear behavior, big game hunting and the government’s plan to remove bears’ federal protections.

Earthjustice: When did you first encounter Grizzly 399?

Tom Mangelsen: Before sunrise one morning in 2006, my yellow lab Loup started barking frantically at the foot of my bed. I saw this bear standing face-to-face with my dog, with only the glass between them. I realized that it was a grizzly bear. It was just staring as my dog was dancing around, being frantic. And then the bear just walked off into the darkness.

Later on, my assistant and I went up to try and see the bear and, sure enough, the bear was eating a moose carcass at the Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park. It was almost dark, and I took a few pictures and thought, “That was really cool. Grizzly bears are returning to Teton Park after 50 years or more.” I didn’t expect to see her again.

About a year later, I heard there was a grizzly with three yearlings near the Oxbow. Later I found out … researchers had collared and tagged the bear as 399. She started drawing crowds, but she seemed very passive about people. That was one of the reasons I tracked her. Not only was she in my backyard, but she was very tolerant of people. We started taking pictures of her and her cubs and watching and learning more about her. 

EJ: What sparked your interest in bears?

TM: I was very taken with bears’ behavior and the fact that they can kill us. They are the top predator on the landscape. My earlier experiences with bears, mostly the polar bears around Canada’s Hudson Bay, gave me a pretty good insight into bear behavior in general. But I never take them for granted. I never know exactly what one might do and what another might not do. There’s a level of savviness and intelligence in bears that is pretty remarkable.

EJ: What have you learned from watching Grizzly 399 so closely? 

TM: Grizzly 399 has learned to work the human landscape to her advantage. She’s given this gift of educating people that bears are incredibly beautiful animals. They take care of their young, they play, they nurse, they chase each other and they show emotions. This bear and her cubs have given us insight—a lens into their lives.

I’ve seen 399 and 610 (one of 399’s offspring) both lose their cubs and go absolutely crazy searching for them, frothing at the mouth and bawling just like you would expect from a mother who had lost her child at Walmart. It’s that same kind of intelligence and emotions that these bears have and we need to respect and honor that. The people who come to our parks have a right to see these bears to enjoy them and to have their kids learn something about wildlife. This right is more so, or at least equal to, the rights of a hunter.

EJ: Speaking of hunting, what are your feelings about big game hunting?

TM: I grew up hunting rabbits, ducks and geese with my dad. Those were some of the best years of my life, so I’m not anti-hunter by any means. But I really hate to see the grand tradition of sport hunting so bastardized by the hunting of lions in Africa and mountain lions, wolves and bears. You should treat the animals with respect. I think the sport has just lost its way.

EJ: Why did you decide to include stories in your book about grizzly bear attacks over the years, which some cite as justification for killing bears?

TM: The author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, Todd Wilkinson, and I included those stories because we felt that it was important to be upfront and honest about the fact that these things do happen, though rarely. We also wanted to let people know that there’s often more to those stories than meets the eye. For example, Dennis VanDenbos, the schoolteacher who was mauled after stumbling upon 399 and her cubs while they were feasting on an elk carcass, later begged the park not to kill 399. He said it was his fault, not the bear’s fault, because 399 was just doing what bears do, protecting her young and their food. 

Yes, the thought of a bear attack is frightening. But these attacks are exceptions to the millions of people who visit the Greater Yellowstone area safely, precisely because it is wild. If Grizzly 399 had been killed, none of her offspring would have existed. By killing one bear, you rob the opportunity of hundreds of thousands of people to see that bear and more bears if they have offspring. Grizzlies can co-exist peacefully with people, but we have to be tolerant ourselves, just as they are tolerant. 

EJ: What are your thoughts on the government’s plan to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list?

TM: Right now, the Fish and Wildlife Service believes that it has adequately recovered the bears. But the agency didn’t look at the big picture, like the fact that the bears are struggling because of a reduction in whitebark pine seeds—one of their primary food sources. They also didn’t adequately consider the fact that even taking a small number of female bears can have a very large effect on the overall population.

If delisted, the management of bears will go to the states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. And the delisting of wolves shows that when the management was turned over from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the states, wolves were incredibly persecuted by every manner of killing. They were shot, snared and trapped in an all-out war on wolves. That is not appropriate in this day and age or ever. It showed the inability of these state agencies to properly manage large carnivores.

EJ: Now that you’ve finished a book about Grizzly 399, what’s next?

TM: My continuous goal is to photograph more wildlife around the world, including Africa, Antarctica and Alaska. I also spend an awful lot of time trying to educate people about cougars, bears and all these things we just discussed. I will continue to fight for the bears and for justice in the wildlife management system. I just turned 70, and I think, “Man, I hope things change before I die.” We need more advocates for wildness and animals like 399.  

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.